To tell our stories is to attempt to make sense of the seemingly unsensible. Singular events, fractured relationships, times when our actions didn’t align with our ethics, our bodies never fail to hold onto these shame-ridden narratives until, whether we’re ready or not, we sit down and stare directly back at them. Enter Complicit by Winnie M. Li and The Last Housewife by Ashley Winstead, two new thrillers centering on women weighed down by their unspoken stories, each in ways knowingly or unknowingly struggling to connect with the present in the aftermath of traumas experienced.
Sarah Lai is the star of Li’s slow burning sophomore novel. A once-aspiring film producer turned lecturer at a forgettable college, Sarah has tried and failed to let go of her former Hollywood life for the last decade. But it wasn’t just a matter of burnout, and journalist Thom Gallagher hopes that in light of the new revelations surrounding a fellow, celebrated film producer, she might finally be willing to let go of a harrowing secret. As she attempts to speak up though, she begins to wonder whether her youthful determination to rise to the top and eventual silence made her complicit in what followed.
Vengeance or absolution; like Complicit, The Last Housewife also volleys between these two themes as Shay Evans, a writer unintentionally turned housewife, is pulled back into the cult that she ran from years ago after Jamie, a childhood friend-now-famous-podcast-host, asks her to help uncover the mysterious death of Shay’s former roommate. As she enters the dark underbelly of her college town, she must confront her own complicity and conditioning to fully understand the truth.
While reading these two page-turners, I was reminded of Melissa Febos’ craft book, Body Work: The Power of Personal Narrative. By alternating between transcripts and narration, readers are witness to the emotionally tangled ride of baring it all. Febos writes, “Navel-gazing is not for the faint of heart. The risk of honest self-appraisal requires bravery. To place our flawed selves in the context of this magnificent, broken world is the opposite of narcissism, which is building a self-image that pleases you.” Shay and Sarah are initially hesitant because they know that they’re not just being asked to share their stories. What Jamie and Thom are looking for is how their stories fit into the overall narrative, which requires an honest self-appraisal no matter how flawed. They’re not sharing so much as they are confessing, and neither woman is sure that they’re ready to do that.
Shay and Sarah may be born from different books, but both women are unconsciously hard at work debating the legitimacy and framework of their stories, in the exact way that a male-dominated society wants them to. This makes it all the more surprising that men end up providing the necessary safe space for them to finally process the past in its entirety. For Jamie, Winstead tells CrimeReads, this was a deliberate choice on Shay’s part, “It’s a safe place for her because, for good or for bad, Shay knows that she has power over him as the girl that he has loved in an unrequited way for a very long time. She’s not using him entirely, but she is a little bit.” As Shay questions how ready she actually is to give words to her torment, she comes to understand that that hold over Jamie is what allows her to feel in control – and thus able to open up—even when the reader becomes unnervingly aware that she’s very much not.
Like so much of her book, Li’s inspiration for positioning Thom as the interviewer was based in reality; “Often people in these positions of power, who are allowed to tell these stories, are men,” she tells CrimeReads before noting the similarities between Thom and real-life journalist Ronan Farrow, who reported on the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. More than that though, is her own experience of being in a position similar to Sarah’s. “My rape story was always being told by other journalists,” Li says, describing those interviews as both weird and disempowering, “It can be a really scary scenario to have a journalist interview you as a victim. I wanted to replicate that tension and mistrust that you would have towards journalists, especially young male journalists who themselves have come from a world of wealth.” Li elaborates further that we do need male allies, it can’t be women alone carrying out that task, “It’s just annoying that people take these stories more seriously when it’s a man telling them.”
When readers meet these two leading ladies, they are weathering through a constant state of discomfort, an unease that has followed them since their traumas. In his widely popular book, The Body Keeps the Score, psychiatrist and researcher Bessel van der Kolk writes: “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” It’s obvious from the first page that part of these characters’ discomfort stems from an agonizing awareness that their history isn’t as cut and dry as they might like to believe it is, making it all the more challenging to speak aloud, let alone to move on. Much of the suspense within these two thrillers stems from trying to guess the moment in which they’ll finally feel comfortable enough to tell the truth in its entirety, no matter the consequences they believe will follow. This great unknowing leaves us to wonder the worst. We sense there is an element of truth to our thoughts, for why else would they withhold information that could answer Thom and Jamie’s crucial questions, but the only way to find out is to keep turning the page.
I feel foolish sometimes, approaching many of the books I read with an over-analytical level of seriousness. I don’t want to place meaning onto a character or object that the author didn’t intend to be symbolic. Sometimes a red coat is just a red coat, and a book set in winter is born out of convenience rather than the dark literary themes surrounding it. In these two instances though, the suspense is built through very real, very serious conversations. Complicit is a product of the #MeToo movement and bolstered by the author’s own experiences as both a former film producer and survivor of sexual assault. And while many will, and already have, compared The Last Housewife with NXIVM, it was more a result of the author’s obsession with the “drastically underreported” Sarah Lawrence sex cult, where a father moved into his daughter’s dorm room at Sarah Lawrence College in 2010 and, over the course of a decade, inculcated wide berths of her friends into a patriarchal cult that twisted feminist ideals.
Winstead’s cult obsession emerged while promoting her 2021 debut, In My Dreams I Hold a Knife: “People were asking me questions about what the heart of this book was and that led me to reflect and realize that what I was ultimately attracted to was the question of why we’re so drawn as human beings—and I hope it’s not just me—to things that harm us. I got stuck on cults as a supreme example of this and how they’re the ultimate toxic, abusive relationship.” The momentum of the book picked up as she connected these questions that she felt urged to explore with the real life events she discovered during her research. Its ties to reality didn’t come without surprises though: “Originally, I thought I was writing about this extreme outlier case of how you could find yourself in a cult and then by the end of the book, I was like, oh my god, we’re all living in a cult,” because what she was looking at wasn’t so much the cults themselves, but the things that shape us and the vulnerabilities that we carry with us throughout our lives that pull us towards these kinds of draconian institutions.
A look at 2022 new releases proves that fictionalized cult books are having a moment. From Winstead’s The Last Housewife to Stephanie Wrobel’s This Might Hurt to Anne Heltzer’s Just Like Mother to Catherine McKenzie’s upcoming thriller, Please Join Us, it appears that a lot of authors are attempting to discern this psychological arc. And Winstead’s new book doesn’t shy away from the chillingly dark answers.
Near the end of Complicit, when Sarah finally reaches that fork between staying silent and speaking out in full, she reflectfully pauses, “I am reminded of that annoying existentialist conundrum: if a tree falls in a wood and no one hears it…I wonder, how many trees need to fall, unheard, before we realize the entire forest is collapsing.” Most compelling about Complicit, as well as The Last Housewife, is how they complicate the definition of victim. Not to excuse complicity necessarily, but to look at the victims through a more gracious lens, one that welcomes the larger gray area that oftentimes surrounds the events.
For Li, Complicit was the working title of her book, believing that it might actually change in the future. In talking with her, it appears that that was the only element of the book in question. She always knew it was going to be about a woman who worked in the film industry who wasn’t entirely innocent herself when she was younger. “Sarah didn’t herself have a lot of power,” Li says, “And so often felt she had to go along with what was happening just to be able to stay in the game. Because at the end of the day, if you work in the industry, if you’re completely naive and innocent the whole time, you’re never going to get anywhere. There’s a certain level of savviness you need to have and I wanted to show someone who, to some extent, had that level of savviness and maybe did make decisions that weren’t one hundred percent morally amazing but still found herself caught out of the equation because she was a woman, a child of immigrants, and a whole other range of factors that were outside of her control.” Flawed characters build the tension within the story. And how could they not when so much of the film world is built on tension. That was something Li wanted to reflect about Hollywood, the absolute hunger for financing, the competitiveness around it, and how that influences the people and the art, occasionally for worse.
While writing her book, and analyzing those questions mentioned above, Winstead discovered that it was complicity, not cults, that bonded all of her characters. The women specifically who enter into these cults, “they’ve been taught, through they’re relationships with men, to look a certain way, talk a certain way, move a certain way through the world. It’s already such a perfect set up,” she says, “I’m not trying to make us all feel terrible, but I think that awareness is critical. It’s why Shay wants to tell her story to Jamie. She needs to see herself from a critical distance in order to open a path of resistance.”
“I’m weary of saying a sort of blanket statement about healing,” Li says when I ask if she believes that personal narrative, or speaking our truth aloud in relation to something like sexual assault, is a significant step to moving past it. “If you look at the academic literature or activists, sharing your story to another person is important. You don’t have to do it in novel form, I don’t actually recommend doing that,” she laughs, in reference to her first book, Dark Chapter, “but just having one person hear your story and believe you and just listen to you is really important.”
The Last Housewife is sure to shake readers up with its cult-influenced extremities, warning readers upfront of the triggers held within its pages: suicide, rape, gender essentialism, and violence. And Complicit will too, in its informed details and unsettling awareness of where the plot is heading. But there is a gentle and intimate understanding of trauma response within these sinister novels. Withholding information is sometimes used as a safety mechanism. And the inner turmoil experienced when finally speaking of a trauma aloud can make us do unexpected things. Shame, fear, and guilt are just a few reasons why people remain silent, and as exemplified in these two books, assault isn’t always straightforward. Instances of abuse continue to populate our news feeds because they continue to happen. And our reactions to these happenings only proves how necessary these kinds of narratives are. In complicating the definition of victim, both novels offer readers a menacing yet thought-provoking story guaranteed to stick with you long after you’ve finished, and essential words for our time.